Perpetual Motion: 14 Ways to Motivate and Challenge Advanced ESL Students

Perpetual Motion: 14 Ways to Motivate and Challenge Advanced ESL Students

It’s very natural, when learning a new skill, for the rate of learning and improvement to feel as though it’s tapering off after a while.

That initial rush of success, when a language student is transformed from someone who can say virtually nothing, to someone who can say a thousand percent as much, is a special thrill, but it cannot last. Eventually, the student will begin to feel that they’re progress has slowed, and with this realization come feelings of boredom and frustration, and a sense that the learning process is no longer as much fun as it once was.

To help your students through this difficult patch, and onward to the lofty achievement of true fluency and native-level language use, here are some tips for keeping your advanced ESL students motivated, for maintaining a positive and energetic classroom atmosphere, and for ensuring that your own work doesn’t become too repetitive, even after months of working with the same class.

14 Ways to Motivate and Challenge Advanced ESL Students

  1. 1

    Praise Them Like You Should

    Your advanced students have done something extraordinary. Achieving a high level of fluency in English is a very worthwhile and notable accomplishment, at any age, and for students of any background. Pick out those special moments where they demonstrate real fluency, use a particularly idiomatic expression or a good metaphor, or when they speak at length without making a single mistake. Even very advanced students get a kick out of being thanked for their hard work or praised for their attentiveness to the nuances of the language.
    Praise Them Like You Should

  2. 2

    Challenge Accepted

    These students have demonstrated a real aptitude for language, so let’s take that skill and enthusiasm out for a spin. Set them more challenging exercises – longer readings, more complex writing assignments, listening which involves real, native-level sources like the BBC, etc.

  3. 3

    Broader Topics

    Advanced students tend to be adults, or certainly people in their late teens (though there are, of course, exceptions). This means you can move away from the typical ESL textbook topics and begin to address more complex, mature and challenging material. Take the temperature of your class on some of these issues, and judge carefully if such in-class discussion would be well received, or whether you might risk inviting divisive and fractious debate.

  4. 4

    Deflate The Ego

    The opposite approach to praising your students can also be helpful. Some advanced students get a little too big for their boots, and become arrogant, especially toward those of a lower skill level. Puncture these inflated egos with sensitive but direct comments. Remind them that, although they’ve achieved much, they’re not yet a native-level speaker; add, perhaps, that their enrollment in a UK or US college is still by no means certain. You could also invite them to take the ‘Turing Test’ for ESL speakers (see below) which will almost certainly remind them of how far they still have to go.

  5. 5

    Vary Your Class Structure

    Many ESL teachers follow the much-cherished (and generally very successful) structure we all learned during our CELTA training.

    Review - Presentation – Controlled Practice – Free Practice – Homework/Consolidation

    I believe this structure works, and I evangelize about it, especially for new teachers. However, if your students have become very familiar with this structure, consider changing things up. Perhaps begin your class with an engaging presentation section, and then head straight into challenging practice exercises (though only if the material has been very well explained and isn’t too difficult). Alternatively, save your review for a ‘quiz’ section at the end of the class. However you alter your structure, ensure that you’re not asking your students to practice something without their first having seen a clear model of the structure, or several good examples of the new vocabulary in context.

  6. 6

    Work Experience

    Some ESL schools, especially the larger ones in big US cities, offer work experience opportunities for their students through relationships with local employers. Try to tap into this, as your students will be exposed to a new world of challenges, as well as realistic opportunities to use what they have learned. If your school doesn’t operate such a program, consider discussing it with your leadership. Alternatively, if you have private students, perhaps speak with friends or family who own a business, and see if you can place your student with a company for a week or two.

  7. 7

    Real-World Tasks

    If work experience isn’t practicable, consider dispatching your students out into your local community for a day of volunteering. Give them a guidebook and challenge them to update sections of it with their findings. Ask them to research restaurants, bars, museums and other attractions before writing a tourist information brochure. Getting out of the classroom is a good way to break the monotony and refresh everyone’s interest in the language.

  8. 8

    Treasure Hunt

    For all ESL students, and for advanced students in particular, a treasure hunt can be a terrific treat, and an excellent practice opportunity. It requires students to actually go into businesses and shops, use a map, read instructions and follow clues. In Boston, we tasked our students to take photos of Fenway Park and the Prudential Center, to bring home menus from certain takeout restaurants, to pose with some famous Boston consumer items, and at important landmarks (the statue of John Harvard, on the Common, outside Mike’s Pastries) and to navigate the MBTA public transport system without using their phones. My students had a great time, and quickly gained confidence in getting around a large, new city.

  9. 9

    Advanced Presentations

    Many of our students will be headed into business, or to college, and in either case, they’ll need solid presentation skills. Build on the typical presentations (a book report or a review of a movie, for example) by expanding the requirements. Have your students research the background of a director or movie genre and present a review of their career. Or, if they’re presenting on a news topic, ask them to go further into the details of why this crisis has emerged, or how this leader has come to power. During Hurricane Sandy, a team of my students gave a fantastic presentation on how Atlantic storms are formed, as well as reporting on the storm’s damage and the related media impact.

  10. q


    This depends on finding native speakers prepared to be interviewed by your students, but given that most people’s favorite subject is themselves, this might not be too difficult! Ask your students to interview a local business person, a politician, a sports star, the director of your school, or the leader of a local charity or other project. It’s another great chance to get out into the community and speak to new people, and the experience of designing good questions for the interview provides a grammar practice opportunity, too.

  11. w

    Media Production

    Ask your students to produce a short film, a video for Youtube, or a radio feature. This could be anything from a short story to a set of interviews, a radio play or a fake news segment, a ‘wish you were here’ video for their friends back home, or a report on a local event (July 4th, a sporting event, the switching on of the town’s Christmas lights, a speech by the mayor, etc).

  12. e


    Advanced students, in particular, relish showing off their skills and competing with each other. I normally discourage direct competition between students, and often don’t give grades for assignments, preferring to write detailed comments instead, but competitions can be a fun way to shake things up. Possible focuses include a poetry, essay, play-writing or descriptive paragraph competition, a speaking or debating contest, a listening contest (based on a real news broadcast, an interview with a high-level speaker, or a famous speech) or small competitions based on bringing in new, ten-point words which they then teach to the class.

    One of my absolute favorite ways of having my students compete is to use the Jeopardy format.

  13. r


    Yes, I’m talking about candy. It almost never fails, unless you’ve teaching a class of calorie-counting health nerds (it happens). Incentives could be linked to one of the above types of competition, and could include tickets to local events (movies, plays, sports), or a raffle contest where everyone pitches in a little money; the total is used to buy a desirable consumer item which becomes the prize.

  14. t

    The ‘Turing Test’

    This expression comes from the rise of Artificial Intelligence. It is a test which uses a set of questions to try to differentiate between a real person and a computer.

    The ESL version is less sinister. Have your students write a paragraph, or record their speaking (conversational or prepared) and then assemble these excerpts alongside those from actual native-speakers.

    Then, ask an impartial judge to decide which of the excerpts comes from a student, and which from a native speaker.

    The written version relies on absolute accuracy and idiomatic use of language, while the spoken version depends on a native-level accent and intonation, as well as accuracy and culturally relevant language use. It’s a major challenge, and I’ve never had a student convince my wife that they’re not, in fact, a student. That doesn’t mean it won’t happen, and I encourage you to try it with your very most advanced students.

With a little thought and preparation, your advanced students can find their learning just as energizing and enjoyable as they did when their skills were multiplying each week.

Push them further, and see just how far they can progress toward true, native-level fluency.

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